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‘Watchmen’: How the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Influences the Series

For creator Damon Lindelof, the idea came to him after he read Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations."

Dajour Ashwood, Steven Norfleet and Alexis Louder in a scene from "Watchmen."

Dajour Ashwood, Steven Norfleet and Alexis Louder in “Watchmen”

Mark Hill / HBO

Last Sunday, HBO’s “Watchmen” recreated the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in its first episode, boosting Google searches of the horrific event, one of the most devastating in American history.

There have been previous attempts to bring the Tulsa story to the screen — Oprah Winfrey, John Legend and Tim Story all had projects in the works at one time or another. But “Watchmen” is the first to do so on such a grand scale, highlighting a very important piece of American history and making its themes current. “What is creating the most anxiety in America right now? For me the answer is undeniably race,” series creator Damon Lindelof told NBC News. “Superheroes cannot defeat racism.”

With that, “Watchmen” becomes a cutting-edge treatise on our present-day upheaval. The new series remixes the DC Comics graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, setting it in present day Tulsa, Okla., and not the usual big cities like New York or Los Angeles. This was a conscious decision by Lindelof.

“I’ve always thought ‘Watchmen’ was about America,” Lindelof said to Tulsa World. “So I had it in mind to pick a more nontraditional place to set the show, and I was thinking, ‘How would that look?'”

The second-largest city in the state of Oklahoma as a setting for the series became viable after Lindelof read celebrated African American author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 Atlantic feature, “The Case for Reparations.

In Coates’ work, the Tulsa Massacre and destruction of the Greenwood District — aka “Black Wall Street,” the wealthiest black community in the U.S. at the time — are spotlighted as arguments (among many others) in favor of reparations to be paid to the descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas.

And in “Watchmen’s” alternate history setting, unlike what actually happened, reparations have indeed been paid to the victims of slavery and their descendants, and resentment about this lingers among a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kalvary. “It’s a lifetime tax exemption for victims of, and the direct descendants of designated areas of racial injustice throughout America’s history, the most important of which, as it relates to our show, is the Tulsa massacre of 1921,” Lindelof told Entertainment Weekly.

In the real-life tragedy, which took place over an 18-hour period, between May 31 and June 1, 1921, the Tulsa massacre started after a 19-year-old black male was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white girl; the exact facts are either unknown or in dispute, and the young man was never actually prosecuted.

Whites were incensed by the allegations and, after an initial violent courthouse melee between blacks and whites, which left 10 white and two black people dead, white Tulsans launched a devastating air and ground assault in the Greenwood district of Tulsa. After it all ended, the Greenwood neighborhood had been burned to the ground, and the number of fatalities ranged anywhere from 100 to more than 300 people.

The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated property losses at the time amounted to $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to a total of $32 million in 2018), which was never fully recovered.

It was a dark moment in American history that has largely been forgotten or just not taught, conveniently swept under the rug. “I was 43 or 44, and I wondered how could it be that I’ve never heard about this,” said Lindelof. “Then I read more, and I said Tulsa was the right place to set the show.”

Watchmen Regina King Episode 2

Regina King in “Watchmen”

Mark HIll / HBO

How the Tulsa Massacre influences the series’ plot is evident from the pilot episode, which plays strongly into the show’s primary theme of racial conflict. And by the end of it, fans will likely have many questions: Who were the Seventh Cavalry in real life, and how do they connect to the fictional, Rorschach mask-wearing, white supremacist militia, the Seventh Kavalry (respelled with a “K”)? Does the emergency code “Little Bighorn” that Angela Abar/Sister Night (Regina King) receives, likely a reference to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where U.S. army officer George Armstrong Custer led the real-life Seventh Cavalry and saw his infamous last stand? Do the Bass Reeves references mean anything? (Reeves was one of the first African Americans to receive a commission as a Deputy U.S. Marshal and worked mostly in Oklahoma territory.)

But most importantly, how do all these seemingly disparate threads connect Lindelof’s “Watchmen” universe, if at all? As Don Johnson playing Police Chief Judd Crawford quotes a Latin phrase to his assembled Tulsa police force, invoking Article 4, which allows the 24-hour release of deadly weapons: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who will watch the watchmen?”). Given the first episode’s viewership numbers (according to HBO, the premiere marked the strongest debut performance for a series on its digital platforms since the premiere of “Westworld” in 2016), audiences will likely continue to watch “Watchmen” and this traumatizing period of American history will become better known.

Resources exist for those who want to dig deeper. Courtesy of the Smithsonian, check out newly digitized footage that shows scenes of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” filmed by the Rev. Harold Mose Anderson. The footage was shot between 1948 and 1952, and, according to the Smithsonian, Anderson played a major role in the neighborhood’s resurgence following the massacre. He was also a successful businessman who owned two movie theaters in the area, as well as a skating rink, a bowling alley, a shopping strip, and more. His goal was to make sure that the dollars spent by black people on Black Wall Street would stay in the community, which would, in essence, guarantee its future. Sadly, it didn’t quite pan out.

Check out a three-minute sample of “Reverend Harold Anderson’s Black Wall Street Film” below (Note: there’s no audio):

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